Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I don’t have anything new to post right now, I’ll respond to a mention of this collection on Classics of Science Fiction. And a reminder unusually relevant with this one — Raw Feeds come with spoilers.

Raw Feed (2001): Man in His Time: Best SF Stories, Brian Aldiss, 1989.MNNHSTMBST1989

Introduction” — Aldiss talks briefly about how he was influenced by the first Shakespeare play he read, The Tempest, and how the short story, unlike the novel, has no hero and, again unlike the novel, is never about the search for truth but features a truth of the author’s. Aldiss, responding to a critic’s remark that his stories don’t as much explain as mystify, sees mystification as a tool to reveal the truth that we do not know everything about the universe.

Outside” — This story is dated 1955 (It’s unclear if that’s a date of composition or date of publication.), so it’s possible that it may have been inspired, if Aldiss saw the magazines they were published in, some of Philip K. Dick’s earlier work (he is an acknowledged fan of Dick), specifically the Dick story “Imposter” which has published prior to 1955. On the other hand, it’s possible he came up with the idea for this story all by himself or was inspired by A.E. van Vogt, Dick’s model for some of his earlier stuff. The story here, a man sharing a house with some other housemates, a house that none of them ever leaves, that none of them even has the desire to leave though they can’t see out of it (and get their supplies from the “store”, a small room by the kitchen), and the man eventually discovering that the house is an observatory where humans observe captured, would-be alien Nititian infiltrators (they kill humans and shape themselves into exact replicas), and the man discovering that he is, in fact, one of those Nititian, is pretty Dickian.  The protagonist was so passive because Nititians tend to adopt themselves to the psychological coloration of the humans around them. In this case, a human observer in the house was in the passive, watching mode.

The Failed Men” — An interesting story, a witty look at the uncleavable union of culture and language. The humans of the 24th Century, called the Children by those of that future, are roped into the Intertemporal Red Cross mission made up of humans from many different periods in the future, to save the bizarre, strange case of the Failed Men, a culture of the 3,157th century. They are deformed in shape, and have, for some unknown reason, buried themselves in the Earth. They literally have to be dug out to help them. The 24th Century protagonist, and his comrades from the same century, find the Failed Men so disturbing that psychiatric hospitalization is required. There are hints that some action of the ancestors created the Failed Men, but no one can be sure. No one has been able to fathom the motives for the path they took.  It may have been religious or a failed attempt at transcendence. The Failed Men are no help in explaining their action. Their language is a melange of abstractions, some seemingly redundant, some seemingly contradictory — at least, to a non-native speaker. Continue reading “Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

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The Spy Who Changed History

Review: The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold History of How the Soviet Union Stole America’s Top Secret, Svetlana Lokhova, 2019.Spy WHo Changed History

I’m pretty sure that most biographers of spies think their book should be titled “the spy who changed history”, but Lokhova actually justifies her title.

Using archival information from the NKVD archives she came across in a previous history about Stalin’s Great Purge, she gives us the story of Stanislav Shumovsky the man who could be said to have made the Cold War possible.

How? Because Shumovsky was not only involved in stealing the secrets of America’s atom bomb but, perhaps more importantly, the means of delivering it – stolen American aviation technology that resulted in the Soviet Union’s Tu-4, its first strategic, transcontinental bomber that could nuke America.

Shumovsky was the first of the USSR’s very useful scientist spies, agents who not only knew the usual tradecraft but who also had the scientific expertise to know what to seek out on their own initiative, how to chat up loose-lipped scientists and engineers who were happy to talk to a fellow colleague, and how to use the gained secrets to develop Soviet technology. Continue reading “The Spy Who Changed History”

“The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

Since James Harris over at Classics of Science Fiction reviewed this story recently and since I’m not close to putting up any new posts, I thought I’d throw in my two cents about Aldiss’ work.

Raw Feed (1989, 2001): “The Saliva Tree”, Brian W. Aldiss, 1965.

TORDOB03A This is a fun pastiche of H. G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft. Aldiss isn’t as terrifying as Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space“, his obvious model — though he does produce some scary moments in making his malevolent aliens tourists and giving us an image of space travel being the product of vicious, ruthless races, but he gives us gentle humor in his references to Wells (including all sorts of references to H. G. Wells titles and his inspiration for The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, and The Shape of Things to Come. Aldiss clearly reveres Wells. Aldiss gives a pleasantly Victorian love story with a rivalry between men. (He also gives us rather muted emotion, but I suspect that is part of the air he wishes to achieve.). Aldiss shows his skill in using literary symbols. The misshapen stuffed animals of Mr. Grendon are a reflection of the aliens altering Earth’s flaura and fauna. The Grendon farm uses lower animals the way the Aurigans use us. The destruction of the electrical systems — and the Grendon farm itself (symbol of socialism’s hope in the value and betterment of the common man) — symbolizes the destruction of the naïve belief in inevitable progress and the linkage of higher morality with higher technology.

Upon reading this story the second time around, I noticed a lot more allusions to the work of H.G. Wells than just (as I did the first time) some references to the titles The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds or the presence of H.G. Wells at story’s end. The first time I read it, I characterized it as a cross between H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.MNNHSTMBST1989

To be sure the basic plot follows the Lovecraft story: an alien lands on a farm, produces changes in humans and plants and animals that causes them to grow large, feeds on the altered organisms, literally maddens some people, kills even more, and returns to space. Aldiss compresses his story timeline relative to Lovecraft’s, has his protagonist intimately involved with the events rather than hearing about them second-hand as the narrator does in the Lovecraft story, has the aliens’ presence explained as a holiday outing, and has his protagonist drive the aliens off. (Of course, in the Lovecraft tale, as typical with a Lovecraft story, humanity is powerless in front of the cosmic menace and not all of it leaves at story’s end.)

This time I noticed the phrases that alluded to (at least, I don’t remember noticing them the first time around) H.G. Wells’ titles: “men like gods”, “food of the gods” (particularly apt for the enlarging effects suffered by the people, animals, and plants on the farm), and “the shape of things to come”. Of course, we’re to assume that Wells’ (this story seems to take place shortly after the publication of The War of the Worlds) gets some future titles from protagonist Gregory Rolles. The socialism — and lack of good socialist comradery on the part of the invisible aliens — of Rolles I caught the first time around. Continue reading ““The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.”

Beyond the Fall of Night

Since I recently brought up Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, I thought I’d also mention Clarke’s earlier version of the story and Gregory Benford’s sequel.

Raw Feed (1991): Beyond the Fall of Night, Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, 1990.BNDFLLFN1990

My reactions to this book follow three veins: comparing Part 1, Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” with the expanded version The City and the Stars, Benford’s sequel to Clarke’s novella in its own right, and the combination as a whole.

As an alternative to The City and the Stars, I liked the latter better than “Against the Fall of Night”. The novel gave full rein to Clarke’s mournful vistas of an ancient Earth where man huddles fearfully. The novella has the same feel but Clarke simply doesn’t have as much space to portray these emotions. Also the novel had many interesting details, notions, and speculations: the psychological and social effects of no new births in Diaspar — just recycling of personalities with undesired memories edited out — and immortality, the instant creation of desired forms of matter (for role-playing games and much else), the sex games of Diaspar’s inhabitants and their evolved state, the mysterious Jester and the more mysterious matter of Alvin actually being born not recanted, the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanamonde (dealt with here but not in as great detail), and the religion of the Master and the enforced silence of his robot servant to spare him embarrassment. The mere length of the novella lessens the tone and emotion that goes so far in making the novel a classic.

I’m not sure if Benford’s addition really stands alone, but I liked it. From what I’ve heard of his novels (I’ve only read his collaboration with David Brin in Heart of the Comet), this story has his characteristic concern with man’s evolution and his place in the vaster evolution of life and intelligence. The vistas of millennia are reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon I suppose, but this part reminded me most of the bizarre future of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse. Benford’s life forms are just as bizarre, even more rationalized (particularly the creatures whose consciousness exist in the magnetic fields of the galaxy), but less well described. Which is just as well. Benford’s creatures are too vast, too alien to be minutely described like Aldiss’. They can just be suggested. Continue reading “Beyond the Fall of Night”

“Mondschein-Dampfer”

This week’s weird fiction is a strange and frothy story that I’m not sure I completely understand after just one reading, so I’ll keep it short.

Review: “Mondschein-Dampfer”, Jean Ray, 1925.Mondschein Dampfer

Our narrator loves Berlin in all its “motley, discordant gaiety”. He also has a thing for Hellen Kranert, a woman who brings to mind, in her movements, a whip, riding crop, and a tropical creeper.

It’s Hellen who initiates sex between the two.

And so we’re off on a tale of whimsy which gets somber.

Hellen says the narrator likes Paris better than Berlin. Ah, but it’s Berlin air that Hellen breathes, the “cruel and clever hothouse” she has emerged from. He likes Berlin best now.

One day Hellen gets the idea for an excursion, a trip on a Mondschein-Dampfer, a steamer that appears moonlight (at least according to my understanding of the translation). It will take them to a midnight party on an island in Lake Müggelsee on the outskirts of Berlin. Continue reading ““Mondschein-Dampfer””

The City and the Stars

The reading has been running far ahead of the blogging this summer. I’m working on a long series of related posts, and I’m not putting them up until they’re all done.

Since this book will come up in one of them, I thought I’d post this.

Raw Feed (1990): The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953, 1956.City and the Stars

This was one of those sf classics I didn’t know much about and really wasn’t too interested in reading till I read Clarke’s comments on it in his Astounding Days. However, I really enjoyed this book.

Like Clarke’s Childhood’s End, this book uses the metaphor of childhood to weave a story of loss, gain poignancy, innocence, and adventure. Hero Alvin’s adventures propel man from the fearful adolescence of Diaspar’s and Lys’ stagnation to its place — again — among the stars.

Clarke builds, block upon block, a suspenseful story that moves ever outward. We start the narrative in a cave (at least the image of one) and end with the stars, with the illusion and threat of white worms to the reality of Vanemonde’s pure mentality and the threat of the Mad Mind which will be freed one day. The people of Earth, locked in decadence, are the new children of the cosmos. The other intelligences of the cosmos and Man have left the universe.

As in Childhood’s End, transcendence is a theme. It is also, as critics have noted, a “what’s over the next hill” story.

The novel obviously owes its lyrical, sweeping, poignant, grandiose tone not only to John W. Campbell’s “Night” and “Twilight”, but also Clarke’s reading of Olaf Stapledon and his uniquely sweeping vistas. Clarke may not have been the first to address some typically sf themes in this novel, but they seem early examples of the treatments. Specifically I’m talking about the dichotomy of the Diaspar/physical sciences and Lys/mental and biological sciences society and the central question of illusion via the Central Computer being indistinguishable from reality.

Clarke, in this novel, seems to have been one of the first to think of the computer as a tool for social administration. Diaspar, though a stagnant place, has some interesting features: storing popular, well-liked art, the simulations (Clarke was quick to grasp this feature of computerized information processing), its twisted byways.

This novel is also interesting for its religious (typical of Clarke) themes: there is a rationalized form of reincarnation with the Hall of Creation. Man — with the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanemonde — assumes the role of Creator God and transcends the universe. There is a prophet (I really liked this idea) and his last disciple who faithfully awaits his return over millions of years and the Master’s robot servant — compelled to silence least he reveal the truth of the Master.

Clarke’s ruminations on religion are interesting, and I wonder if they’re personal. He chides religions who insist they alone are true, calls the religious impulse a uniquely human aspect. Yet the Master’s message appeals to alien and human, and Clarke takes a ecumenical viewpoint in saying a religion that appealed to so many must have had much that was true and noble even if the master’s evangelical message of miracles and prophecies was false and eventually deluded even its speaker.

I liked the polyp (interesting biology) patiently awaiting his master and the robot who — at story’s end — becomes a messenger to the galaxy of man’s rebirth.

I liked many other elements of scenes of this novel: Vanemonde’s childlike state, and Clarke’s use of immortality and the Halls of Creation. (I’m not sure I agree with Clarke’s ideas about immortality leading to cultural stagnation and the necessity of ending the process at novel’s end. But Clarke seems to see immortality destroying personal intimacy by eliminating the need for the family and procreation and dulling life by taking the cutting, driving edge of death away.

Also interesting was the legend of Shalmirane which turns out to be a myth to cover up Man’s cowardly retreat to Earthly isolation and stagnation, epitomized by the starship buried in the sand. Alvin eventually questions whether or not he’s just been obsessively selfish> The city of Diaspar, at the end of time, was eerie.

Lastly, I liked Alvin being a rogue agent, a sport in the social planning of the closed system of Diaspar (sounds, probably intentionally, like Diaspora) specifically intended to revolutionize, abolish, and change that system.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

“Kerfol”

This week’s bit of weird fiction.

Review: “Kerfol”, Edith Wharton, 1916.51rE8bWYihL

Wharton’s story isn’t scary or suspenseful, and it has few surprises.

It is, however, still interesting.

And it’s got ghost dogs.

The story opens with our narrator, evidently a wealthy sort, going to visit the old manse Kerfol, “the most romantic house in Brittany”. His friend says it’s not only for sale at a cheap price but “just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you”. Loneliness and solitude will be themes in this story right from the first paragraph.

One afternoon, the narrator heads off to Kerfol. The guardian of the house and his daughter are unexpectedly gone, so he can’t go inside, and he just wanders the grounds. It’s there he meets five dogs of various types. They are not menacing – or particularly cheerful. They seem grave and not interested in play.

Back at his friend’s house, his friend’s wife, is very surprised that he saw the dogs. She’s heard of them, of course. They are the ghost dogs of Kerfol. Continue reading ““Kerfol””